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Univision Incident Reignites Questions About Diversity In Latino Media

Former Univision host Rodner Figueroa
Alexander Tamargo
Getty Images
Former Univision host Rodner Figueroa

Univision host Rodner Figueroa has been let go for offensive remarks about first lady Michelle Obama.

It all started on Wednesday, when a picture of Obama flashed on the screen of the popular program El Gordo y La Flaca. Figueroa commented "Michelle Obama looks like she's part of the cast of Planet of the Apes."

Quickly, Figueroa was fired. Univision released this statement: "Yesterday during our entertainment program 'El Gordo y La Flaca' Rodner Figueroa made comments regarding First Lady Michelle Obama that were completely reprehensible and in no way reflect Univision's values or views. As a result, Mr. Figueroa was immediately terminated."

Figueroa released his own statement addressed to Obama: "I was verbally notified that because of a complaint from your office, my employment was being terminated." Figueroa claims his joke was a criticism of an artist's depiction of Obama.

The Washington Post reports Univision executives deny that the White House called to complain.

In his statement, the Venezuelan Figueroa, who was a fashion and entertainment commentator for the network, said he'd voted for Barack Obama twice. He also spoke about his own background, saying he comes from a biracial Latino family, and his own father is a black Latino. But he apologized, saying his comments where inexcusable, and that they "could be interpreted as offensive or disrespectful."

Figueroa's firing comes on the heels of another high-profile falling out over race and fashion. Recently on the popular E! show Fashion Police, host Giuliana Rancic was blasted for commenting on African-American actress Zendaya Coleman's dreadlocks. "I feel like she smells like pachouli oil," Rancic remarked "Or weed!" Rancic was accused of being racist, and a few days later co-host Kelly Osbourne quit the show. Shortly after Osbourne left, host Kathy Griffith stepped down, and released a statement on Twitter, saying "Listen, I am no saint. ... But I do not want to use my comedy to contribute to a culture of unattainable perfectionism and intolerance towards difference. I want to help women, gay kids, people of color and anyone who feels underrepresented to have a voice and a LAUGH!"

This is hardly the first time Univision has gotten in trouble for racist remarks and humor. In 2010, when soccer's World Cup was played in South Africa, the network aired a segment where the hosts wore Afro wigs and held small spears. Univision apologized.

NYU Professor Arlene Davila, who studies Latino media, says she's not surprised. "I think that anybody who watches Univision regularly ... will notice the white, white space that station historically has been," she says. "You're not going to see Indo-Latinos, you're not going to see Afro-Latinos." In fact, she says, the Univision landscape is often whiter than mainstream U.S. television.

Davila says Latino television largely echoes, imports and repackages Latin American programming, with all its pitfalls. "Already in Latin America, our very [media are] skewed and not a representation. But then you're talking about the U.S. Latino world, you would think that it would be a different world — a world that would not be tied to the traditional racist views of our countries, but that rather would try to imagine a pan-Latino universe."

What troubles Davila is an idea "that you can't apply the same standards of racism because we have our humor and we are not racists, because we are Latinos, and we can get away with that without getting regulated."

How to regulate is an ongoing issue. In a recent New York Times opinion piece, lawyer Francisco R. Montero wrote, "Once a sleepy backwater of the broadcasting world, Spanish media is now big business and there is barely a city or town in the country where you cannot find some type of Spanish broadcasting on TV or radio. So it was only matter of time before questions of indecency would arise ... we still don't know precisely what Spanish terms may be 'indecent' in the F.C.C.'s view."

Davila adds that Spanish language media have a captive audience. "You can't blame the people that watch it," she says, "because those are the people that don't have the power to change it, you know? And they're watching it because it's what's available, it's the lack of choices in Spanish language television."

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Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.

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